Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic and a recipient of the 2022 Windham-Campbell Prize in Nonfiction. She has published three books: Constructing a Nervous System: a memoir; Negroland: a memoir; which won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography; and On Michael Jackson. She was on the staff of The New York Times from 1993 to 2005 as an arts critic. She has also written for The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, VOGUE, O, Newsweek Harper’s, Granta and The Yale Review. Her work has been anthologized in The Mrs. Dalloway Reader, Best African American Essays:2010, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture and elsewhere. She lives in New York City and teaches in the Writing Program at Columbia University.
Constructing a Nervous System is a temperamental autobiography which places Jefferson in conversation with writers, poets, musicians, and visual artists. Through her, we experience pieces of the cultural, social, racial, gendered world as a kind of aesthetic nervous system, which sings in spite of and because of its maiming.
Tiffany Troy: How does the opening set up the reader for what is to follow?
Margo Jefferson: Because it’s laying out so many possibilities from just the idea of inventing, if you will, your own kind of psychic, temperamental nervous system, then announcing that it’s in process. It’s been a little damaged, weakened. It’s going to get strengthened. And then, I start to pull in my quotes. It goes in a lot of directions with a lot of directness. I like to think that prepares readers.
Also, the direct addresses might be useful: Okay. Repeat after me. I’m talking to myself, but I could be talking to the reader.
TT: Can you describe the process of writing Constructing a Nervous System?
To me, the book tells the story of the family, as a kind of criticism that ebbs and flows, and examines the “misquotes” as a means to understand the subjectivity of the self. It looks to the self—both the projected self as well as the true, changing self—in the context of culture and society, and plays at styles deemed beyond the “laws, rituals and behaviors” that the speaker has been taught to live by.
MJ: That’s perfectly put, and I have almost nothing to add to it.
Negroland has so much to do with this constant push-pull, collaboration and competition between what we consider our personal, private selves that we invent, develop, and shelter in some ways from the world and the cultural, political, social, world outside, with fixed identities and status levels. It was also my being a kind of omniscient narrator of this particular cultural, social, racial, gendered world that I had grown up with, that had made me, as I said there, and maimed me. What remains?
For this book, first of all, the memoir part, the intimacy, the scars, the exhilaration, the shameful privacy, and the delightful ones. Those are very much connected to art and culture and kind of ecstatic experiences. Ecstasy can be frightening also; that’s why I’m using that word.
The memoir, the intimate self, lies every bit as much in these cold experiences, the sound of a voice, the life of a charismatic and psychologically kinesthetic performer. Those matter as much as the psychoanalytical: the relationship with your mother, with your father, the dramas and strategies of multiple racial and ethnic identities, the intersectionality. They’re all there, but they aren’t privileged over what I call temperamental autobiography which is the self experiencing pieces of the world as a kind of aesthetic nervous system.
TT: How do you organize the collection into different sections?
MJ: First, I got them out there. I free associated how they might fit together, and I knew that was just the beginning. Then you sit down. You read over everything you’ve written, and then you go back to what you’ve left out. You think about as you read what you’ve already written. What might I want to say more? What do these other pieces I’ve written want me to say to each other, and as part of a whole?
It’s this dialogue of self and soul, or of writing selves. I just keep re-associating, reorganizing, redirecting, and finally, I find what resonates most. I didn’t want the end of this section to absolutely hint at what the beginning and the end are going to be, the way certain essays do.
I wanted the layers on all those emotional and intellectual archaeology to be accumulating. So they were, beneath the surface, but lying there and vibrating as I move from an experience or association or obsession to another.
Or, if I decided on the page I need a rest—this has been too exhausting. But the rests aren’t random; I took the rest with Du Bois and George Eliot, and with James Baldwin and Sammy Davis, Jr. after the long Willa Cather piece. I mean I needed it as a human being, Margo the writer, but I knew I could use it as Margo, the creator of the text.
TT: How do forms inform your collection? You talk about resisting repetition in illusions, but you also talk of repetition in emotions, so the mixtapes and musings and the original versus your take, and the anecdotes and the rewriting. I also loved your use of the bold face type.
MJ: I didn’t end up using it everywhere that I’d originally thought, but it’s an alarm system and a mode of expression in its way. Maybe it’s like fortissimo, and staccato. You also need things that entertain you. Why wouldn’t the bold face and different fonts be connected to all these changes?
I’ve always lived inside my head, and as much as I can on the page, it’s like pieces of music, other writers’ words. The words can be emotionally, intellectually haunting, but often it’s the rhythm, the tone, and the voice. I keep piles of note cards and little quotes! Of course, that’s part of my nervous system.
The idea that I could just openly confess to this, and exalt in it, gave me more room. It meant I was always in dialogue with some words, some sensibility that was part of my past. They didn’t have to be so neatly resolved, but they were in dialogue with each other. It made me very aware of keeping my prose vivid and alive, because in a way I had to live up to them, and in a certain way show that I could dominate. I don’t mean “dominate” in the sense of I’m better, but you belong to me now.
The misquote. Part of this book is about how you make something that feels fresh out of the materials of living, struggling, loving, of the society that constrains and defines us, and that we work not to be. We embrace, and also are repelled by and fight.
TT: How does form allow certain motifs, like musical motifs, to come through?
MJ: You keep composing and recomposing. I had not used the word motifs–you did–and that’s absolutely right. You establish motifs, and then you can mangle them a little bit, too, so it becomes like a discordant motif. But still there.
I didn’t put very much under erasure, that technique that we all love so much. But in a sense that’s what I was doing a lot of the time, even when I wasn’t signifying it with here, it’s under. I only did that once, but I do think the way I use quotes is in some ways doing that. You put it under erasure, then you bring it up.
You set yourself in a conversation with it, and you change places.
TT: I really love that. You talk about how a writer works with what she lacks as well as what she has, moving beyond negative capability and awakening to something beautiful beyond the squeamishness in being less than outstanding, and being moved by the madness of aberration. Those are some of the things that you explored in the collection.
MJ: You’re right that in a way it’s a collection—not the way we say an essay collection—but it is an assemblage, which is a collection.
TT: What do you wish for your readers to get out of the book?
MJ: One thing I genuinely want my readers to get out of the book is I want their own relationship to their temperaments, the various things that can be forces or tiny, tiny little threads. They can be insects on your skin, the things that form you and shape you and mend you. I want their awareness of that to be kindled, so that they are doing it in their lives and with their own materials. So that, in engaging with my materials, sets off at the same time, or before, or after, their desire to do that and their need to do it.
Yes, I want them to react strongly to me, but I want my reader to go further down the line, to go a step further: Construct your own nervous system!